By: Kathryn Gerardino-Elagio
The workforce is the heart and soul of every manufacturing company. The right people can drive a business to incredible heights, while the contrary can lead it to failure. In Singapore, one of the most pressing challenges for small and med-size enterprises (SMEs) is the predominant labour crunch.
International Metalworking News for Asia sat down with Wai Yip Lee, General Manager of Hurco (S.E Asia) Pte Ltd, to discuss a possible solution that can help businesses not just in Singapore but the entire Southeast Asia (SEA) region to bring order to the chaos of batch production and high-mix manufacturing.
Wai Yip Lee, General Manager of Hurco (S.E Asia) Pte Ltd
“The labour crunch is the biggest problem that is affecting every industry, especially precision engineering. The precision engineering industry has always faced a shortage of skilled workers and the pandemic has further aggravated the situation with an unpreceded movement of workers from Singapore and parts of SEA. Foreign workers in Singapore, even in some areas of SEA, are moving away from the big cities. This movement could be temporary but manufacturing companies are exploring options to reduce their dependence on entry level workers like machine setters. Automation is the first thing that pops up in their mind,” remarked Wai Yip.
He mentioned that after the pandemic, machine shops have relooked at how they are using machines and their overall business model. “Machine shops owners want to upgrade their current machining capability while keeping costs at the optimum level to stay competitive. Most of these shops in the SME segment are subcontractors, serving larger companies and the export markets. They want to move away from providing general machining services and move up the value chain. Faster, multi-axis machines that can hold tighter tolerances and reduce set-up time are seen as essential in their upgrading journey,” Wai Yip added.
SHOPFLOOR AUTOMATION SOLUTION
Wai Yip understood the common struggles machine shops experience with traditional automation, such as lengthy implementation and set-up, steep learning curve and the reliance on system integrators for program and sequence changes. As a result, he is offering a shopfloor automation solution as an upgrade option to Hurco users and others, who wish to transform their machine shop.
“Hurco has introduced a new line of shopfloor automation solutions under the brand name ProCobots. This initiative has started from our Hurco USA head office where customers have requested for an automation solution that is easy to use, flexible and can be efficiently operated by their existing machinist. It has received encouraging response from our users in the US and Europe, where labour rates are substantially higher. I cannot wait to bring ProCobots to our customers in Singapore; they face the same situation as these matured markets,” he disclosed.
According to him, the ProCobot provides easy to use one robot to one machine tending capability, without having to utilise a third-party software. “We have developed an automation manager software that is incorporated within the existing Hurco MAX5 controller that the machinist is familiar with.
This software provides the direct link and interface to the ProCobot robotic arm and parts station. This allows an existing Hurco user to utilise the automation manager to command the robot and schedule the CNC programs for various parts loaded onto the parts station. A standard integration package that includes an auto-door, pneumatic vise and an interface utility box makes this a quick "plug and play" solution for Hurco machines. The ProCobot can be installed on an existing Hurco machine, and up and running in less than a week. If you need to swap the ProCobot from a machining centre to a lathe to support a production run, it can be moved easily and set-up within a day.”
Hurco ProCobot caters to both batch production and high-mix low volume production. “We are currently running tests on actual batch production parts of our customers so that we can identify the range of parts suitable for ProCobots and its various Profeeders (parts station). The initial successful runs will certainly encourage our customers to adopt ProCobots into their production floor,” Wai Yip said.
Wai Yip plans to introduce ProCobot officially in early 2023, after the initial live production tests. “We will showcase the ProCobot solution in a practical way, i.e., a live production environment, to our customers in Singapore so that they can identify whether this is a viable solution to their machine tending needs. They can see for themselves how this simple solution, can be incorporated into their production floor and programmed by their existing machinist. I believe that ProCobot could be the starting point of transforming the machine shop towards a modern manufacturing environment.”
Wai Yip noticed the increasing trend of high-mixed low volume production requirements in the market today. “With the changing consumer patterns and shorter lifecycle for most products, five-axis technology will continue to be a very important part of our strategy,” he said.
The regional markets just opened, and Hurco being a regional player in SEA wants to use this opportunity to reconnect with its end users and existing customers thru a series of tradeshows. Wai Yip noted, “The tradeshows provide a good platform for us to reconnect with the regional markets and find out how end users’ expectations and demands have evolved after the pandemic. This will provide first-hand information to help shape our activities for 2023 so that we can continue to serve our customers and grow our installed base across the SEA region.”
Besides investments in industry tradeshows, Wai Yip is focused on expanding its distribution channel in key markets like Vietnam. “We have recently appointed a new distributor, Weldcom, who has strong presence throughout Vietnam. They have two key showroom and technical facilities in Binh Duong and Hanoi, plus several satellite offices. We trust that through an expanded distributor network and technical facilities, we will be able to reach out a wider base of end-users and share how our technology can assist them to increase their profitability.”
DEALING WITH CHANGES
With the current economic slowdown, Wai Yip regarded the SEA market as unpredictable in general. “There are many challenges being faced by the industry, including supply chain disruptions, inflationary pressures, labour crunch, and geopolitical uncertainties. These challenges will affect and shift the demand of end users in the market.”
“The strength of the US dollar versus regional SEA currencies has also further escalated the inflationary pressures. It will take some time for SEA currency to stabilise and buyers to gain confidence to invest. In the meantime, our key focus is to introduce automation solution to help our customers solve the labour crunch; and to simultaneously work with them to identify potential areas of improvement to stay competitive. Be it supporting test-cuts for their R&D projects for new products or improving the productivity within the machine shop,” he declared.
Wai Yip added, “We must stay close to the market so that we could continually tweak our plans and activities along the way to suit the emerging needs of various end users in different markets.”
Wai Yip perceived the current economic slowdown is temporarily more of a market reset after Covid. “I am confident that the market will pick up around mid-2023, so we must continually upgrade and position ourselves in a way where we are ready to ride the wave to recovery.”
“Vietnam is the fastest growing market for us. In terms of market relevance, it will probably be number one compared to other parts of SEA. There is still a lot of opportunities here with continual flow of FDIs and local machine shops upgrading and investing in new technology to serve the growing needs. So, we do see a continual growth in demand of machine tools for the Vietnamese market.”
In terms of the emerging demand, Wai Yip expressed, “We will see a substantial increase in the adoption of automation and smart manufacturing solutions by machine shops in Singapore in line with the Singapore government’s refreshed Industry Transformation Roadmap 2025 for the precision engineering (PE) industry. Companies are encouraged to upskill their workforce, adopt digital manufacturingplatforms, automate, and introduce advance manufacturing techniques in their business. To stay relevant, businesses will need to transform and set themselves right to compete against the global market. We are committed to drive our solutions to support our customer transformation needs.”
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